PEORIA, Ariz. — Robinson Cano is right. It’s clear that the Mariners need more.
They have two of baseball’s elite talents in Cano and Felix Hernandez, but they need more. The Mariners are marketing that “The Stars Are Aligned,” but the rest of sky is the real concern.
In a CBSSports.com story this week, Cano played general manager and suggested his new team re-sign designated hitter Kendrys Morales and pursue pitcher Ervin Santana. That would make sense, at least in the short term. But unless Cano is already willing to take a pay cut on his $240 million contract, the likelihood of the Mariners signing two more major free agents is as slim as the franchise hosting Eric Wedge Appreciation Night.
You could react by pressing the easy button and calling the Mariners cheap, but that’s silly considering the investment they made in Cano less than a year after giving Hernandez $175 million. The more thoughtful response is to give nuanced consideration to the new issue facing this franchise: What is the best way to build around Cano and Hernandez?
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Spending money recklessly is a recipe for disaster. But so is being too methodical. The Mariners aren’t rebuilding anymore. They have loads of young, unproven talent still on this roster, but they don’t have time to be a glorified babysitting agency anymore. There should be greater urgency. Cano is 31 and near the end of his prime. Hernandez turns 28 next month, and he has logged more than 1,800 innings in his career.
If the Mariners want to maximize their time with these two as the centerpiece, they must win as soon as possible. They might be operating in a four-year window to get the most out of the King and Cano tandem.
So, how do you build a great team within that timeframe?
They have to be aggressive without making any mistakes, which goes against their track record. The stakes are as high as they can be this time, however. They will pay King Felix and Cano $415 million if both remain Mariners through their contracts. You can’t spend like that and fail to build a playoff team. Heck, you can’t spend like that and fail to build a true World Series contender.
But while the Cano acquisition makes the Mariners better, they still look mediocre, at best, on paper. Their outfield is sketchy, especially defensively, and they might not have the offense to compensate for that weakness. Overall, defense, speed and athleticism are issues throughout the entire roster. And with Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker missing significant spring time with injuries, their starting pitching might suffer early in the season.
Yet the Mariners are off to a good and purposeful start in spring training, and new manager Lloyd McClendon is appropriately optimistic. He talks of the Mariners potentially having “shutdown pitching.” Young players such as outfielder Dustin Ackley and catcher Mike Zunino are attacking this preseason with more confidence than we’ve seen from them.
If slugger Corey Hart can stay healthy after missing the entire 2013 season with knee issues and play to his career .824 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the Mariners would look even better. But at this time of year, every team can cobble together enough ifs to believe it can compete. If you evaluate what’s solid about the Mariners against what’s questionable, you come up with an average team.
So how do the Mariners advance past such a state — and quickly?
Well, they’re not the Yankees, so they won’t follow all of Cano’s advice. But they should extend themselves and re-sign Morales. He’s not going to receive the huge contract he wanted, which makes him a wise investment. Morales, who hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBI last season, was the Mariners’ best hitter a year ago. They traded a valuable pitcher, Jason Vargas, to get him. His return would give the Mariners a legit middle of the order, with Cano batting third, Hart fourth and Morales fifth.
Yes, you’re adding to the team’s athleticism issues and limiting some of its versatility. But the offense would be better, and if Hart’s knees don’t hold up, you still have a chance to be a productive lineup. As the Mariners are built right now, there’s a scary amount of pressure on Hart to be healthy.
Santana would be an incredible No. 3 starter on this team, but if the organization believes it has shutdown pitching and believes Iwakuma and Walker will be factors early in the season, they could refrain from signing Santana, who is likely to receive a longer and larger contract than Morales.
If the Mariners need more pitching, there will be in-season options via trading some of their young talent. Then, regardless of how this season goes, the franchise must have a stellar winter, finding long-term options in the outfield and making the roster more dynamic and versatile.
The Mariners are about three good moves and a couple of tweaks from having an ideal team. They had better hustle without being foolish.
This is expected to be their 13th year out of the playoffs. They’re not eligible for public patience. For all the buzz they created by snagging Cano, there’s still plenty of skepticism.
That’s because Year 1 of the King and Cano looks to be a mere feeling-out process.
Waste any more time, and the whole star-aligned idea might seem like a waste.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277
On Twitter @JerryBrewer